What Can a Husband and Wife with Different Convictions Learn from Romans 14?
The first-century church in Rome was made up of both Jews and Gentiles, which caused a few problems between these well-meaning brothers and sisters in Christ. Two differences in particular gave Paul reason to address their situations in drawn-out fashion in Romans 14.
First, some had no problems with eating meat from animals that had been offered up as idol sacrifice, while others strenuously objected to such a diet. Second, some felt strongly that the sabbath should still be held in high esteem above all other days, while others had no conviction either way.
While some New Testament readers in the twenty-first century may assume Paul’s advice on these matters has little to do with them today, I would disagree. The essence of Paul’s instruction to the church in Rome could be summed up in the same phrase I use regarding many of the gray-area conflicts that too often lead to a husband and wife taking a few spins together on the Crazy Cycle—“Not wrong, just different.”
A Jewish believer who insisted on worshiping on the sabbath only and never eating meat that had been offered to idols was not wrong for believing so. However, neither was the Gentile believer who felt comfortable worshiping any day of the week, and doing so after enjoying some freshly grilled lamb! Neither was wrong, only different. So then, how does the Gentile husband and Jewish wife come to a decision over what to eat and when to worship? Paul’s word in Romans 14 speaks to exactly that. Fast-forward two thousand years, how does the husband and wife who have different convictions regarding whether or not to send their child to public school make their final decision? Paul’s word applies to this couple too!
Avoid Wrongly Judging
Throughout the chapter, while addressing the differing Jewish and Gentile believer, Paul focuses on the bigger-picture issue of judging the other for their beliefs and convictions. Unfortunately, even today a husband and wife with different convictions in the gray areas can:
- Wrongly pass judgment on a spouse’s opinion (Romans 14:1)
- Regard with contempt their spouse who God accepts (v. 3)
- See themselves as doing what they do for the Lord but deny the same to their spouse who does it differently (v. 6)
- Be more focused on judging their spouse than focusing on the account they must give of themselves to God (vv. 10, 12-13)
- Be so convinced that they are right, which they can be, that they conclude their spouse is wrong instead of different (vv. 14-15)
- Fixate on their spouse’s differences as wrong rather than peacefully affirming the good things about their contrary convictions (vv. 19-20)
- Tear down God’s work by pushing their agenda and end up being an offensive personality all the while blaming their spouse for being different from them (v. 20)
Today’s couples may not argue about when to worship, but they might have disagreements about where to worship. And though they don’t have reason to bicker about meat from animals that have been used for idol worship, many couples today have different opinions about what foods they will allow their children to eat. When conflicts in the gray areas of life arise, they can learn from Romans 14 about not wrongly judging the other and instead remember Paul’s concluding word on the matter: “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God” (v. 22). Your conviction is your own; it may not be your spouse’s . . . and that is okay! Remember, “not wrong, just different”!
So Then How Can a Decision Best Be Made?
“Okay, Emerson, I understand that. My spouse is not wrong for not sharing my conviction, and I shouldn’t judge them as such. However, a decision still needs to be made. What do we do when we disagree about where to send the kids to school or what type of church we will attend?”
One of the overriding principles I suggest that a couple adopt when needing to determine such matters as these is based on determining who has the most potent convictions about the direction they should take. I say this because sometimes a person’s conscience and beliefs pressure them to go in a specific direction.
We observe this dynamic in Romans 14. One could eat meat, and one could not eat meat. One person wanted to worship on this day, and another wanted to worship on another day. Paul instructs each person to serve the other’s conscience and conviction. If a person cannot eat meat, don’t tell them they should eat it. “The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat,” he tells them, “and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (vv. 3-4).
Later Paul dives deeper into why such respect for the other’s preferences should be the case. “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way. . . . For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died” (vv. 13, 15).
In marriage, there’s nothing wrong with showing deference to the person who feels weaker or more vulnerable or has a strong sense about what would be suitable for them to move forward. For instance, suppose one spouse feels strongly about not subjecting their child to a secular school system, while the other has no problems sending their child to public school. After all, they both went to public school; why shouldn’t their children?
Given that the opposing spouse is humble, reasonable, and good-willed, they feel the decision must consider their conscience and conviction. Yes, maybe the child could thrive in public school, but this parent does not have the freedom of conscience to sign off on this—at least not at this time. Assuming their conviction is genuine and not part of any kind of manipulation, the better part of wisdom would suggest that the final decision (which has to be made eventually—the child must attend school somewhere) should lean toward the opposing parent’s confidence and conviction. For the other spouse to minimize these convictions, put their foot down, and send their child to public school despite the conscience of their spouse would be comparable to a first-century Gentile husband forcing his Jewish wife to prepare the family dinner from animals that had been sacrificed to idols.
Or consider this situation a wife shared with me concerning the differing views she and her husband held about a sleepover for their daughter:
Our 13-year-old recently was given permission to attend a “co-ed” sleepover. My husband said that he was totally fine with it because he had spoken to the mother (of the girl hosting the sleepover) and she reassured him that the boys would be sleeping outside in the tent, while the girls slept inside. I was so shocked by his refusal to see any concerns in this. . . . I am still in shock over it!!
Here we have a wife who has reasonable concerns about their thirteen-year-old daughter attending a sleepover that will include boys, and a husband who is okay with it (after some initial investigation. Though they differ in their opinions, a decision must be made—their daughter can either stay for the entire sleepover or not. Should the decision be based on the one who has the greatest concern about moral protection and purity, or not? How do both assess without judging the other? Is this an issue about who has the strongest conviction for or against something? Yes, I believe it is. Therefore, Paul’s word in Romans 14 fits well for this situation.
As the one with less of a conviction (or at least not a moral conviction), the husband should defer to the wife’s conscience and conviction, regardless of the daughter’s feelings. However, the husband could say to the daughter, “Honey, we know you see this as a fun time and that our concerns are out of line. But, as you age over the next several years, I need you to trust us as we navigate some of these decisions. Our decision is not an attempt to prevent you from having fun but based on our belief that some thirteen-year-old boys will push the boundaries to see if the girls will respond. Unless a couple of fathers are sleeping outside with the boys and will be awake the entire time, at least two of the boys will be restless and see if they can make contact with at least one girl. In addition, there is no reason to have a co-ed sleepover. It is inviting this kind of thing to happen. The hormones in boys differ from the hormones in girls. Trust me, boys aren’t just thinking about friendship but about other things, and their curiosity can get the better of them. So, why put boys in a setting to push those boundaries?”
Is it possible that, in the end, no harm came from the sleepover, all the kids had a great time, and there ended up being no serious mischievousness? Yes, of course. But by respecting his wife’s greater convictions and concerns in the matter, he honored his wife, protected his daughter, and taught her some important wisdom concerning hormonal teenage boys and how best to navigate through potential inappropriate situations.
That’s a win-win-win!
Questions to Consider
- Do either you or your spouse have any convictions or concerns that the other does not share, that could be reason for conflict in parenting decisions? If so, what are they?
- If you applied Emerson’s Romans 14 principle—determining who has the most potent convictions about the direction that should be taken—to any of the above matters from question 1, how might the decision have been made?
- If you were giving advice to the wife who wrote Emerson, how would you instruct her to best share her convictions with her husband about the co-ed sleepover?
- Why should the spouse with lesser conviction or concern stay away from shaming or even correcting the spouse with the stronger conviction?